Put Down Your Torch and Pitchfork

“Everything we hate about the media today was present at its creation: its corrupt or craven practitioners, its easy manipulation by the powerful, its capacity for propagating lies, its penchant for amplifying rage.

Also present was everything we admire—and require—from the media: factual information, penetrating analysis, probing investigation, truth spoken to power.
Same as it ever was.”

— Brooke Gladstone, The Influencing Machine

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Art and Picture Collection, The New York Public Library. (1862). Tarring and feathering of Ambrose L. Kimball, editor of the Essex “Democrat,” Haverhill, Mass., a rebel-sympathizing journal. Retrieved from http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/510d47e0-f97c-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99

Though it has roots going all the way back to the 1960s, one of the largest criticisms during this election cycle is the notion of the biased “liberal mainstream media” (MSM). Add to it now equally valid criticisms from those who feel that major media outlets have been derelict in their duty to report on events that are of importance, choosing instead to cover sensational “controversies.”

Both of these criticisms have merit, but is hardly reason to cheer for their downfall. A free press is integral to the functioning of a democratic republic. If people think The New York Times is so hopelessly biased that it deserves to go out of business, then let the market decide that if it will. But to say that journalists should be jailed, laugh when they receive death threats, to cheer at the thought of a politician shuttering a news organization through expensive litigation is irresponsible and downright un-American.

There are several problems with so many people lacking any trust whatsoever in major media outlets. One is a matter of lumping several outlets together in an attempt to define what is mainstream and what is not. Another is that since people have different reasons for their mistrust, they may retreat to clearly biased echo chambers from where honest rational discourse is no longer possible. Also when so many vilify the media, the public won’t be so alarmed when government comes chipping away at the freedom of the press and that will have devastating consequences for all of us, and must be avoided at all costs.

What is mainstream? What is alternative? There are likely as many different definitions as to what comprises the MSM as there are media outlets.

In the 80s it was the big three television networks’ news divisions, major newspapers like The New York Times and The Washington Post, and weekly news magazines Time, Newsweek and U.S. News and World Report. As far as cable news, CNN was the only game in town for a little over 15 years until MSNBC and FOX News Channel launched in 1996.

Now with the rise of the Internet and thousands of websites, podcasts, You Tube channels, and blogs, there are more sources of information than ever. Trying to peg down what would be considered mainstream and what would not is pointless. Maybe the distinction should be made between “old media” and “new media” but then you would not be able to speak of “mainstream” media.

I think it is important to be specific in your mistrust and not discount entire organizations. Just because you find one does a terrible job at delivering the news does not mean that they all do.

Find individual journalists you like who do good work. Maybe there is one person you like at a newspaper you don’t particularly care for. Read them specifically, follow them on social media platforms to see others they recommend you read. It is really important to find good journalists writing great work about important things. Abandoning the fourth estate is abandoning one of our core American freedoms.

Another danger of an “anti-news” outlook is that by turning completely away from strong institutional news organizations and flocking to partisan websites, one will only get biased news they agree with, except the rhetoric is turned up to 11 and the information is far less reliable.

This has been happening for some time with conservative consumers who are unable or unwilling to filter out any slanted commentary from traditional media sources, thus the growth of alternative news sites on the Internet increased exponentially during the Obama administration. Conservative news became even more fractured in the past year as many choose to abandon FOX News and other traditional sources filtered through a conservative lens because of perceived bias against Donald Trump.

If you are angry about bias in the media, it makes no sense to rely on sources that are even more biased; that just proves you are only interested in news promoting your own brand of bias. If you want to be informed it’s going to take some effort on your your part. Get media literate.

Finally, we tend to take our freedoms for granted in America. We are certainly allowed to express our displeasure at news outlets that don’t deliver. The best way to do that is to not use them: don’t buy that paper, don’t watch that network, call their advertisers if you want to make a stronger statement.

But what you should never do is support the criminal prosecution of journalists who have a different opinion than you. Don’t cheer on those who attempt to threaten to silence voices critical of those in power with litigation. Many Americans don’t realize that they are cheering for an end to a free press, which is a foundation of our Constitutional rights as defined in the First Amendment. Be careful what you wish for.

 

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